‘The heart of the house’: Knole House through the lens of Woolf’s Orlando

1. Knole House

Vita and Virginia

In the summer of 1940, as the German invasion of Britain seemed imminent, Vita Sackville-West sent her most treasured possessions to safety.  Vita was living at Sissinghurst, a grand but now ruined Elizabethan house, in the heart of the Kent countryside. The county was exposed to regular air raids and British soldiers were stationed in Sissinghurst Tower on the lookout for German parachutists. With the fear of invasion hanging over her, Vita sent away her jewels, her will, and a book manuscript. 

While Vita was a celebrated author, the manuscript was not her own. The pages of purple ink were the manuscript of Orlando, given to her in October 1928 by her friend and lover Virginia Woolf. Vita’s son Nigel would later describe the novel as ‘the longest and most charming love letter in literature’.

Vita and Virginia first met in December 1922, with the latter noting afterwards that she had felt ‘shy and schoolgirlish’ in the presence of the ‘lovely gifted aristocratic Sackville West’. After this meeting their relationship grew, as the two women continued to dine together and write to one another. Vita later noted that whilst they did occasionally ‘sleep’ together, their relationship was more ‘a spiritual thing… an intellectual thing’. 

Virginia was invited to Knole House, Vita’s Elizabethan ancestral home, in the summer of 1924. Virginia was both in awe of Knole and Vita, writing that ‘all those ancestors and centuries, and silver and gold, have bred a perfect body’. The visit inspired Virginia’s Orlando which embodied her love for history, for Knole, and for Vita. 

Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann


Virginia first started to write Orlando, a novel about a 16th century nobleman who lives for over 400 years and changes biological sex along the way, in March 1927. Virginia’s progressive attitude towards gender is clear in Orlando, as she views gender as a social construct and takes care with Orlando’s pronouns. After his transition she states that ‘for convention’s sake, say “her” for “his”, and “she” for “he”’. It is ‘simple fact’ that ‘Orlando was a man till the age of thirty; [then] he became a woman.’

The character of Orlando was based on Vita, ‘the lusts of [her] flesh and the lure of [her] mind’, her portrait became Orlando’s likeness. Vita, like Orlando, flouted the rules of gender and had many lovers. Her husband Harold Nicolson once commented that ‘I don’t mind who you sleep with, so long as I may keep your heart’. Harold also had his fair share of same-sex lovers. 

Virginia explores same-sex ‘Sapphist’ attraction in Orlando, with the protagonist noting that ‘being of the same sex… [did] quicken and deepen those feelings’ which she felt towards women. 

However, her tone is also wary. Virginia notes that Orlando’s poetry about ‘Egyptian girls’, a verse taken from Vita’s The Land, was risky when she has ‘a husband’ at home. Virginia’s message to Vita is clear, she ‘had only escaped by the skin of her teeth’ as she had put on a wedding ‘ring’ and found ‘a man’.  Homosexual acts between men were illegal, but queer women would be outcast by society and Vita had much to lose. 

The main setting of Orlando is the ‘great’ Elizabethan house, ‘more like a town than a house’, with its ‘halls… galleries… courts… bedrooms’. This house was clearly based on Knole with both houses—the real one and the fictional one—being said to have 365 rooms and 52 staircases. In Orlando, Sackville-West’s ancestral ‘leopards’ appear on the stained-glass windows and Orlando brushes her hair with ‘King James’ silver brush’ which is kept in The King’s Room at Knole. 

King James’ silver at Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann

While Orlando preserved Vita’s character, it also preserved the essence of Knole for Vita. This was Virginia’s greatest gift to her lover, saving Knole’s soul within the pages of her book. On 28 January 1928 Vita’s father died and the ancestral home passed to Vita’s uncle. Vita couldn’t inherit because she was a woman. The 1000-acre deer park and four-acre house had been Vita’s childhood home. She had ‘loved it; and took it for granted that Knole loved’ her. After her father died, she only had a few days to rule Knole. After that she lost Knole ‘forever’ and faced a ‘turning point in [her] life’. 

The deer at Knole. Photographer: Hannah McCann

One cannot fully comprehend Vita’s loss without visiting Knole in person. Once you enter the gates it takes a few minutes to drive up the winding road to the house. You pass through fields and woodland, all dotted with herds of deer. The house itself is imposing and expansive, with hundreds of grand rooms all furnished with expensive furniture. 

Most significantly the house is packed with Sackville-West heirlooms and portraits. Their wealth and their history bleeds through the walls. The power that Knole holds is palpable. Vita could have lived like a Queen if being a man had not been the key to unlocking Knole. 

The Sackville-West leopards at Knole. Photographer: Hannah McCann


In 1930, following her loss of Knole, Vita and Harold purchased Sissinghurst. This was a cluster of derelict Elizabethan farm buildings, two cottages and a tower. When they moved in ‘not a single room was habitable’ but over the years they transformed Sissinghurst into a world-famous English garden and a romantic castle. 

Vita filled Sissinghurst with items from Knole, her bed, her amber flasks from her childhood windowsill, her mirror. Yet, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Sissinghurst simply became a copy of Knole. While both were Elizabethan mansions with a connection to the Sackville-Wests, Sissinghurst became its own entity shaped by Harold and Vita. 

Sissinghurst Castle and Gardens. Photographer: Hannah McCann

Perhaps in response to Orlando Vita wrote the poem Sissinghurst, dedicating it to Virginia. She wrote of ‘a tired swimmer in the waves of time’ who finds the ‘castle… buried in time and sleep’. Vita painted Sissinghurst in a rose-tinted light, as Virginia had done for Knole. Both used their words to preserve these houses and their love for one another.

Eventually, both Knole and Sissinghurst would meet the same fate and were handed over to the National Trust. At the time Vita was reluctant to hand over her ‘darlings’ but as Orlando notes ‘the house… belonged to time now; to history’. Yet, the combination of the National Trust’s vital conservation and Vita and Virginia’s writing has prevented these houses from slipping under the ‘waves of time’. 

Hannah McCann is a history undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield. She recently completed the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Project which provides undergraduate students with an opportunity to research an area of special interest. In her project she chose to look at how Vita and Virginia’s Queer relationship manifests itself in their literature and at their National Trust Properties. 

Cover Image: Knole House. Photographer: Hannah McCann

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Bringing Nineteenth-Century Women to Life in Present-day Uruguay


As a cultural studies scholar, my work on historical novels from Uruguay at first glance seems to stand out from a website titled ‘History Matters’. Whilst many consider historical fiction to be the frivolous sibling to the rigor and precision of historical research, what happens when history cannot provide any answers? What about people who were marginalised for their gender, sexuality, class and/or colour and could not leave traces of their lives? How do we access their past experiences when historically we know very little about them? It is in these recesses of history where, I argue, fiction can play a significant role. In other words, narrative imagination can function as an effective tool for studying and thinking about an inaccessible past.

One of the Uruguayan historical novels that features in my research is titled Untamed Love: The Women of Artigas (Amores cimarrones: Las mujeres de Artigas, 2011, translation mine). Written by Marcia Collazo Ibáñez, who is also a historian by profession, this highly successful novel traces the lives of six women connected to Uruguay’s ultimate national hero, José Artigas (1764-1850).

One of the leaders of the revolutions which began in 1810 against the Spanish Crown in the River Plate of South America, Artigas led and later governed the Banda Oriental region (present-day Uruguay). In 1816 Banda Oriental was gradually invaded by Portuguese forces, and by 1820 Artigas and his armies were forced into exile in Paraguay where he spent the last thirty years of his life.[1] Despite being defeated by the Portuguese, curiously, after Artigas’ death his actions and ideals were exalted to proclaim him the father of the Uruguayan nation, a position he holds until today.

So, what about the women connected to Artigas, one may ask? Although his grandmothers, Ignacia Carrasco (1701-1773) and María Camejo (1714-1772), and his mother Francisca Asnar (1743-1803) are sometimes mentioned in historical works, they are often side-lined to highlight Artigas’s noble and honourable actions. His wife, Rosalía Rafaela Villagrán (1775-1824), furthermore, was portrayed not only as a ‘mad’ woman due to her ill health but also as someone who could not understand his need to fight for self-determination. His other partners, Isabel Sánchez (dates disputed) and Melchora Cuenca (birth date disputed-1870), on the other hand, were deemed inconsequential by male historians who also glossed over the national hero’s possibly promiscuous behaviour.[2]

Published in 2011, when Uruguayans celebrated the bicentenary of Artigas’s heroic actions, Collazo Ibáñez’s novel Untamed Love is divided into six parts with separate sections devoted to each of his grandmothers, his mother and his most significant three partners. In each of these six sections, the novel follows a very interesting pattern, as history and narrative imagination co-exist side by side. After conducting thorough historical research, the author precedes each anecdote about the women’s lives with short quotes by mostly male historians, significant leaders and sometimes Artigas himself. Then she proceeds to describe what might have occurred from the women’s perspectives, sometimes questioning Artigas’s behaviour towards them. Indulging her readers in a counter-history, which is partly imagined, the author, in a rather feminist gesture, writes these women into history.

In the case of Artigas’s official wife, Rosalía Rafaela, although she has been often mentioned in history books, even school textbooks, there are no known archival sources from her hand, i.e. no letters nor a diary. The information we have on her is second-hand: letters her husband or other officials wrote and parish entries. In Untamed Love, on the other hand, Collazo Ibáñez uses a first-person narrative to describe Rosalía’s ‘madness’. The section on Rosalía in the novel begins with her interior monologue as she wakes up in a hospital bed and inadvertently overhears her doctors discussing the reasons for her illness and unfortunate situation. This scene, symbolic of historians talking about Rosalía whilst her response was only silence, counters patriarchal history as the author uses narrative imagination to portray Rosalía’s experience in the hospital.

One might ask, how does this work differ from any other historical novel? Untamed Love is not a mere fictionalisation of the past. That is to say, it does not depict historical types but instead fictionalises the lives of real, often marginalised people. In doing so, it engages with a recent sub-genre that Linda Hutcheon has termed ‘historiographical metafiction’.[3] In fact, as Untamed Love’s author Collazo Ibáñez first attempts to access these women’s lives through history, she points to gaps in historical discourses and utilises fiction to fill them. In this sense, history does matter, but when there are insufficient historical sources available, fiction offers a space to imagine how traditionally marginalised people, like women, lived their lives. That is to say, when history is not enough, fiction steps in.

Karunika Kardak recently completed her PhD in Hispanic Studies from the University of St Andrews and is currently an academic tutor at the Department of Spanish there. Her doctoral research focused on literature from the post-dictatorship period in Uruguay and studied issues of national identity and cultural memory in historical fiction. You can find her on Twitter @KKarunika.

Cover image: Portrait of José Gervasio Artigas, circa 1884.

[1] John Street’s Artigas and the Emancipation of Uruguay serves as a perfect introduction for Anglophone readers to Uruguay’s history and the national hero’s role in it. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959).

[2] See Isidoro de María, Rasgos biográficos de hombres notables de la República Oriental del Uruguay, 3rd edn (Montevideo: Imprenta Artística, de Dornalecha y Reyes, 1889); Luis Bonavita, Sombras heroicas (Montevideo: Impresora L.I.G.U., 1949); and Juan Alberto Gadea, El ambiente hogareño donde nació Artigas (Montevideo: Estado Mayor del Ejército, 1974).

[3] Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism: History, Theory, Fiction (New York and London: Routledge, 1988), p. 114. See Jerome de Groot on historiographical metafiction in The Historical Novel (London: Routledge, 2010), pp. 119–21.

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Thirty Years of the Fatwa


In late 1988, Muslim protestors in Bolton and Bradford, two poor and ethnically divided northern hotspots, were encouraged by television reporters to burn Salman Rushdie’s allegedly blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. Soon afterwards, on 14 February 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie and his publishers had dramatic impact in the UK, as well as on global geopolitics. Thirty years ago today, Iran cut its diplomatic ties with Britain in the course of the controversy. Following Rushdie’s ‘bloody Valentine’, the spotlight fell on Muslims. Previously they had been a virtually invisible minority group in Britain, subsumed within the broader category of ‘Asians’.

In this post we want to discuss the Rushdie affair in the context of a tide of rising Islamophobia and stereotyping. Since 1989, and accelerating after 9/11, Britain has seen a clash of fundamentalisms between extremism in the name of Islam on the one hand, and Western neoliberalism or state extremism on the other.

The Satanic Verses is about South Asian (mostly Muslim) and other migration to the UK, and the loss of religious faith. It contains a notoriously intangible section in which a character, Gibreel, who is psychotic, has a dream about someone called ‘Mahound’ (an insulting Orientalist term for the Prophet Mohammed). Rushdie, or Gibreel, or Gibreel’s disturbed subconscious, imagines Mahound as a paedophilic libertine who is also a ruthless businessman. Drawing on the now much-discredited satanic verses myth, the narrator suggests that sections of the Qur’an were dictated by the devil.  Prostitutes give themselves names of Mahound’s wives to excite their clients, and these names just happen to be those of the historical spouses of the Prophet Mohammed. There are countless other jabs at Islam, and religion more broadly.

This section of the book caused great offence to many, though not all Muslims. Particularly offended were Muslims who, like Rushdie, hailed from the Indian subcontinent, where the Prophet and his family are held in especially high veneration.  As the controversy spread, the novel was banned in India and burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom and Pakistan. This culminated with Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issuing a fatwa (a legal opinion rather than a binding law) in February 1989 against Rushdie and his publishers. He followed this up by offering a million-pound bounty for the person who could kill Rushdie.

The fatwa was abhorrent and indefensible, but the dominant liberal reaction to the Satanic Verses protests was also questionable. Rushdie was positioned by commentators such as Fay Weldon and Malise Ruthven as one of their own. A pale-skinned, Cambridge-educated exponent of free speech, Rushdie’s Voltairean upholding of debate and democracy was juxtaposed with the supposedly barbaric and alien values of the protestors.

A reductive binary of liberating freedom of expression versus repressive religious culture emerged repeatedly in responses to the controversy by writers, publishers and journalists, as well as members of the cultural commentariat in Britain and elsewhere. Rushdie’s backers typically based their support for him on an absolutist defence of free speech. In this way, they echoed Rushdie’s own self-construction – expressed in essays such as ‘In Good Faith’ and ‘Is Nothing Sacred?’ as well as his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton – as a courageous artist fighting against reactionary forces and speaking truth to power.

The reality was, and remains, much more complex than this. Freedom of speech is not a neutral concept or principle, and religious offence is always shaped by context. The majority of Rushdie’s British Muslim dissenters were far from powerful. Their protest was influenced by their social, racial and religious marginalization, and largely dismissed or vilified by privileged members of a liberal, secular arts establishment.

In the years following the publication of the novel and the subsequent furore, a number of controversies involving a clash between creative freedom and religious offence have grabbed media headlines. In Britain, the staging in 2004 of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play Behzti at the Birmingham Rep angered some British Sikhs. Then in 2006 small-scale protests erupted in London’s East End in response to the filming there of the adaptation of Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane. Nearby, in the Netherlands, Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s controversial depiction of Islam in their 2004 film Submission led to van Gogh’s murder. The following year saw global protests erupt in response to the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed in Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. Meanwhile the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo has been in the eye of a similar storm on several occasions and with devastating consequences.

Responses to these disputes by liberal commentators have remained hamstrung by a black-and-white worldview. Free speech is seen as a transcendental and absolute good, and religion – most often Islam – as censoring and censorious. Yet, there have been glimpses of a more gradated understanding in recent years. In 2015, for example, acclaimed writers including Peter Carey, Taiye Selasi and Michael Ondaatje objected to PEN’s decision to award their Freedom of Expression Courage prize to Charlie Hebdo because of the magazine’s offensive depictions of Muslims and other disenfranchised groups.

It is crucial to reflect on the events of thirty years ago and their legacy to ask how we might move forwards in a context that is deeply divided and plagued by Islamophobia. As Anshuman Mondal shows, any artwork intended for the public domain has a transactional dimension, and speech is a social and communicative act. Thus, creativity isn’t just about self-expression, and freedom of speech might work to forge understanding across differences. We must all recognize that some people are freer to speak than others. Also important, we suggest, is the imperative to speak – and listen – with social responsibility.

Rehana Ahmed is a senior lecturer in postcolonial and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University of London. Her most recent book is Writing British Muslims: Religion, Class and Multiculturalism.

Claire Chambers teaches global literature at the University of York and is the author of four books including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays.

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Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives

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At death, we enter myth—our lives and work become the subject of stories told by others.

Charlotte Brontë was one of the myth-makers. Shortly after her sisters’ deaths in 1848-49, she penned a ‘Biographical Notice of Ellis and Acton Bell’. In this preface, she revealed the names behind the pseudonyms—Emily and Anne—and performed the first public telling of their lives, shaping her sisters’ posthumous legacies: Emily was “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child”; Anne was reserved, enigmatic, “[covering] her mind, and especially her feelings, with a nun-like veil.”

Charlotte did not, however, reveal her own name. She continued to published under her pseudonym, Currer Bell, and no authorial portrait was permitted to circulate in the press or accompany her work. She preferred to “walk invisible’ (as she put it in a letter to W.S. Williams).

But Charlotte too must enter myth. She died in 1855, and after a first flurry of obituaries and memorials, her story was told by Elizabeth Gaskell in what would become one of the nineteenth century’s most famous biographies. The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) transformed its subject into an icon. Currer Bell’s bestselling works were tied irrevocably to Charlotte’s name, and for the very first time, general readers could gaze upon her face: an engraving of the only professional portrait taken from life was printed next to the title-page.

Charlotte’s ‘Notice’ and Gaskell’s biography instituted what Lucasta Miller has called “the Brontë myth.” Think isolation, think windswept moors, think three untamed intellects fuelled by repressed desire, think a small parsonage cut off from the outside world. (And yes, think Kate Bush in a red or white dress, arms flailing.) Myth is not the same as falsehood; rather, these are the stories we tell to make sense of the world and ourselves. Myth can be a justification, a rationalisation, a dream or wish-fulfilment.

History and myth sometimes agree, sometimes not. But the history of myth is something that can be traced, teased out, turned to account: myth’s origins and uses; myth’s revolutions and evolutions. Anniversaries provide a convenient and memorable occasion upon which to follow the threads of these posthumous stories.

In 2016 Charlotte Brontë turned 200—cue new editions and adaptations of her work (cf. Linda Marshall-Griffith’s stage-play, Villette), and new tellings of her life (cf. Sally Wainwright’s television drama, To Walk Invisible). For my colleague Prof Deborah Wynne and myself, the bicentenary provided a further opportunity: a chance to look anew at our persistent fascination with Charlotte’s plots and characters, poetry and fictions, letters and essays.

Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives (2017) is the fruit of this labour: a new collection of essays by a range of Brontë experts from across the UK and Europe. The book is divided into two sections. The first, entitled ‘Ghostly afterlives: cults, literary tourism and staging the life’, explores the history of biographical myth-making, from the first Brontë pilgrims at Haworth to the founding of the Brontë Society and Parsonage Museum, from Charlotte as Gothic revenant in commemorative poetry and fiction, to her role as the butt of on-stage jokes that satirise pilgrims and idols alike.

The second section, entitled ‘Textual legacies: influences and adaptation’, explores the survival of Charlotte’s work across the 162 years since her death. What are the ethics of adapting this material? What is involved, for example, in bringing Bertha Mason from Jane Eyre before a twenty-first-century audience? What are the financial imperatives? The Brontës are traded across a variety of cultural industries: publishing; heritage and tourism; stage, television and film production. But just who, or what, is being bought and sold?

In our introduction to the book, Deborah Wynne and I explore the contested iconography of Brontë portraiture, where Charlotte’s changing face provides a clue to the twists and turns of her posthumous reputation. On Monday 9th October, as part of Sheffield’s annual Off The Shelf Festival, I’ll be delivering an illustrated talk on this very subject. I hope you can join me there to scrutinise the brushstrokes that fashion Charlotte into myth.

Amber Regis is a Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Sheffield. She is the editor of The Memoirs of John Addington Symonds (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and has published essays and reviews in Life Writing, English Studies, Journal of Victorian Culture, and the Times Literary Supplement. Amber and Deborah Wynne’s new book Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives  is published by Manchester University Press. History Matters readers are able to take advantage of a 50% discount using the code OTH774. ‘Charlotte Brontë’s Face’, Millennium Gallery, Sheffield, Monday 9th October, 7pm. Tickets available from Off The Shelf. You can find Amber on Twitter @AmberRegis.

Contents of Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives :

Introduction: ‘Picturing Charlotte Brontë’, Amber K. Regis and Deborah Wynne

Chapter 1: ‘The “Charlotte” cult: writing the literary pilgrimage, from Gaskell to Woolf’, Deborah Wynne

Chapter 2: ‘The path out of Haworth: mobility, migration, and the global in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley and the writings of Mary Taylor’, Jude Piesse

Chapter 3: ‘Brontë countries: nation, gender and place in the literary landscapes of Haworth and Brussels’, Charlotte Mathieson

Chapter 4: ‘Reading the revenant in Charlotte Brontë’s literary afterlives: charting the path from the “silent country” to the séance’, Amber Pouliot

Chapter 5: ‘Charlotte Brontë on stage: 1930s biodrama and the archive/museum performed’, Amber K. Regis

Chapter 6: ‘“Poetry as I comprehend the word”: Charlotte Brontë’s lyric afterlife’, Anna Barton

Chapter 7: ‘The legacy of Lucy Snowe: reconfiguring spinsterhood and the Victorian family in inter-war women’s writing’, Emma Liggins

Chapter 8: ‘Hunger, rebellion and rage: adapting Villette, Benjamin Poore

Chapter 9: ‘The ethics of appropriation; or, the “mere spectre” of Jane Eyre: Emma Tennant’s Thornfield Hall, Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair and Gail Jones’s Sixty Lights, Alexandra Lewis

Chapter 10: ‘“The insane Creole”: the afterlife of Bertha Mason’, Jessica Cox

Chapter 11: Jane Eyre’s transmedia lives’, Monika Pietrzak-Franger

Chapter 12: ‘“Reader, I [shagged/beat/whipped/f****d/rewrote] him”: the sexual and financial afterlives of Jane Eyre, Louisa Yates


Image: Cover image from  Charlotte Brontë: legacies and afterlives [Provided by the author].

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